Jonathan Brun


Category: Philosophy

On Basic Minimum Income

This simple concept could change the world: Give everyone a salary without constraints.

Under the model referred to as Basic Minimum Income,  all citizens would receive a monthly cheque for a reasonable amount of money. The amount would cover basic needs – food, shelter – allowing you to survive, but not stay idle. Citizens would still need to conduct some form of work and those that earn enough would ultimately pay back this stipend through their income tax. This proposal is going to a referendum in Switzerland and gaining increased attention amongst both left and right wing policy wonks.

In Switzerland, they are proposing to dole out $33,000 to each citizen every year. In oil rich countries, such as Qatar, salaries are already paid out to citizens. The Dutch dole out over $1800 a month to welfare recipients. The concept of free money to citizens is well established, it is just masked as pension plans, welfare payments and unemployment benefits. Yet, a simpler version could bring a number of benefits. There is mounting evidence that the best way to empower people, communities and reboot our economy is to simply hand out cash.

Basic Minimum Income is not a new idea, it has been proposed by leaders at both ends of the political spectrum. Proponents of basic minimum income range from the neoliberal economist Milton Friedman to the socialist civil rights leader, Martin Luther King Jr., who stated clearly,

“I am now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most effective — the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income.” — Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community

Money is power. By better distributing society’s wealth, while simultaneously simplifying its management, we will hand power back to the people. With the added power and freedom, citizens would be expected to more fully participate in public life, better care for their children and parents, and contribute to the improvement of their communities and country. Ultimately, democracy is about distributed egalitarian power and without adequate financial freedom a large portion of our population cannot participate in the governing of society.

The money for this program would likely come from a variety of sources. First, numerous existing programs such as unemployment benefits, welfare, pension plans and student grants would be cancelled. Secondly, we could cut administrative cost substantially since we will no longer need to manage these programs. Third, new sources of revenues could be identified, some likely candidates include natural resources, a sales tax on online business, the repatriation of money held in tax havens and larger taxes on bank profits. By combining a simplification of our complex social programs and our complex loophole prone tax code, we could find the money to pay for a Basic Minimum Income.

A monthly income of $2 200, basically minimum wage, currently puts you at the Canadian poverty line. By adding a monthly $1300 stipend to the lowest salaries, we would bump someone living on the edge of poverty to a much better position, where they can invest in their future and their children’s future. For someone already earning a middle-income, say $45 000, an additional $1500 would let them pay for extra activities for their children, invest in their home or start that company they were thinking of. I will explore the math for Montréal, Canada and Québec in a future blog post, but I am convinced that basic minimum incomes is the foundation of a new, more potent democracy for the 21st century.

Ultimately, a basic minimum income is about freedom. Freedom from some of the constraints of a wage labour existence and the empowerment of individuals to participate more actively in social life and in their communities. The link between labour and servitude is a struggle we have dealt with since the beginning of civilization. The Greek philosopher Demosthenes stated simply,

“Many are the servile acts which free men are compelled by poverty to perform…” (Against Eubulides, 57, 45).

The benefits for basic minimum income (also called guaranteed minimum income) are numerous, but here are three.

1. Simplify governement bureaucracy or take out the middle man

Right now, we offer a myriad of programs to financially help people integrate the job market, go to school, or retire. All of these programs, and more, could be cut. Instead, we simply give out cash.

In the American sitcom “Seinfeld”, George once made the joke that life would be much better if you started as an old person, with money, got younger and younger, while retaining you wealth and ended as an orgasm. A basic minimum income would help compensate for the aggregation of wealth in the top age bracket. It would also allow for students and young families to invest in their education and future, making all of society richer.

By handing out cash, we would take power away from government, bureaucrats, politicians and place that power in the hands of citizens. The point is not that all government workers are bad, but rather that people tend to have a better idea of what they need than someone else. Of course mistakes will be made with these monthly payments, but generally speaking, less errors will be made than what we are currently doing.

Studies are emerging that show foreign aid (1) is better spent with clean, simple cheques to families than complex investment programs designed by policy wonks. The more complex a program, the more prone it is to corruption and abuse. Both abroad and at home, our complex systems are abused by crooks, costing us all a lot of money. As crazy as it might sound, people generally have a good idea of what they could use money for and when put in their hands (especially women), they tend to invest, pay back debt and build a future for themselves. If it works in Africa, why not here.

2. Place a foundation under peoples’ feet

Poverty is not simply a financial figure, it is a mental state. People without reliable income or a secure job live in constant insecurity. They do not know if or when they can pay the rent, feed the kids or can ask for a raise or promotion for feat or losing their job. The constant stress and worry contribute to mental health problems which harm them, their families and ultimately cost society extra resources for their treatment and policing. The lack of stability also reduces low-wage workers or temporary workers’ ability to go to school and move up the social ladder.

A minimum basic income would stabilize these workers, allowing them to focus on their long term future, instead of their weekly bills.

3. Encourage consumption

Islamic finance claims that a fundamental part of a healthy economy is the constant circulation of money. Like blood in the body, you want money to be constantly circulating, any dead pools are just that – dead. By distributing cash to citizens, consumption of goods and services will increase. This will lead to more tax dollars for the government, more stores staying open and a general increase in economic activity – which benefits everyone.

Imagine for a moment the impact of giving $ 1 500 dollars a month to someone on minimum wage, which is about $ 2 200 dollars per month at 35 hours per week. That person, who is perhaps a parent, would instantly be able to buy new clothes for they children, purchase higher quality food or invest in their home. They would generate tremendous economic activity and this is of course true for people above minimum wage too.

Arguments against a basic minimum income

The most common response to this remarkably simple idea of giving money out is that people need to earn their money and free money will reduce incentive to work. While I agree that handing out free money may reduce some incentive to engage in work, it will probably reduce people’s need to do undesirable work – serve at McDonald’s, mop floors or make low quality products. If anything, giving people a good exit strategy from low quality work will force companies to innovate and offer higher quality, more creative and better work environments where humans actually want to work.

To head off on a small tangent, basic minimum income will probably push companies to automate repetitive non-value added tasks. Henry Ford once said,

“If you need a machine and don’t buy it, then you will ultimately find that you have paid for it and don’t have it.”

A similar expression is that if something can be automated, it should be. During my time as a coop student at McGill, one of my peers was offered a job at a mine site. The company later admitted that prior to offering him the job, they did a cost analysis comparing his salary to the cost of a machine that would do exactly his job. He was cheaper than the machine and unsurprisingly his summer job was as boring as you could imagine. He took samples and tested their acidity for 4 months. If we had a basic minimum income (and a higher minimum wage), they would have bought machine due to a lack of candidates willing to work for low salary and both the student and the company would have been better off. By offering a basic minimum income, employers will be forced to automate repetitive non-value added tasks in their workplace to encourage people to work for them. A push towards higher workplace efficiency will make the average job more intellectually challenging and fulfilling, ultimately making our economy more advanced and more competitive.

Another common response to basic minimum income is that people will waste the money on booze, cigarettes and luxury items. My response is to ask you, “What would you do with $ 1 500 extra per month?”. Most parents or grand-parents say they would spend it on their children, offering them more activities, and taking more vacation to spend with them, etc. The rest of us, without offspring, risk spending it on good and services, helping kick-start the tepid economy we currently have.

A last negative comment to rebuke is the idea that offering this money would cause inflation, rent-seeking or that we simply cannot print this money. First, most of the money I am proposing to hand out comes from existing programs. For the rest, we could print it with little risk. A recent article outlines how during the 2008 financial crisis the United States alone printed 3.6 trillion dollars! Some feared this would lead to inflation, but in fact inflation has not budged. The article in question proposes to print an extra 200 or so billion dollars to be used for foreign aid (5). It is an interesting idea and we could certainly print that money and more and give it to our our citizens at home – who might even donate some of it to foreign aid!


The concept of basic minimum income solves a number of problems – government bureaucracy, lack of democratic power, and a slow economy. It appeals to both left wing and right wing people and can act as a catalyst for a rebirth of the notion of government and shared societal responsibilities. Hopefully, once some forward thinking countries have adopted such a system (i.e. Switzerland or Scandinavian Countries) and we all see how well it works, we will do it here. This spring, there is a conference at McGill on Basic Minimum Income, I hope you will join me there.

P.S. After my stint as an Open Data activist in Montréal and Québec, I am considering putting my time towards Basic Minimum Income in Canada. Please let me know what you think of this idea and help promote it within your networks.

P.P.S. Be certain to check out Basic Income Canada Network as they seem to be leading the charge at the Federal level.


1. Study on handing out cash as foreign aid program
2. Government Guaranteed Basic Income
3. Moral Aspects of Basic Income – Marco Nappolini
4. Free Money for everyone
5. Print money for foreign aid
6. Switzerland referendum
7. Rethinking the Idea of a Basic Income for All
8. Québec Solidaire support basic minimum income in Québec
9. Funny take on automation

État du Québec 2013 : Des Québécois(es) brillant(e)s

Voici ma réponse à la question « D’après vous, à quoi la participation citoyenne peut-elle être utile? », publiée dans l’État du Québec 2013 — une livre essentielle pour toute personne concernée par l’évolution de notre société. Disponible en librairie ici.

Des Québécois(es) brillant(e)s

Les meilleures décisions sont celles prises par les personnes et les groupes concernés. Dès que l’on éloigne les décideurs des partis affectés, un clivage entre l’impact voulu et la réalité se façonne. En tant que citoyens ayant des familles, des amis et des emplois, nous constatons quotidiennement des problèmes dans nos quartiers et nos milieux de travail. Même si nous ne détenons pas nécessairement les réponses à portée de main, des citoyens mobilisés, éduqués et impliqués ont les moyens de s’informer et de proposer des pistes de solutions qui peuvent améliorer leur qualité de vie. « Monsieur et Madame tout le monde » est beaucoup plus intelligent qu’on ne le pense.

Chez Wal-Mart, les employés jouissent de pouvoirs remarquables. Malgré sa taille imposante, chaque employé, peu importe son rang ou son niveau d’éducation, peut consulter le coût et le profit de tout article en magasin – des informations normalement gardées secrètes. S’il le croît opportun, il peut également décider de mettre un article en vente sans l’autorisation d’un supérieur. Lors d’une belle fin de semaine, un employé peut donc réduire le prix des BBQ à son gré. Wal-Mart sait que ses employés connaissent mieux leur communauté que son siège social et octroie le pouvoir décisionnel en conséquence. Bien que nos gouvernements soient plus complexes qu’un magasin Wal-Mart, ils partagent deux ressemblances: leur taille ainsi que la diversité des individus impliqués dans leur succès. Wal-Mart démontre bien que les grandes organisations qui comptent des millions d’employés ainsi que des centaines de millions de clients sont plus efficaces lorsque le pouvoir est partagé avec les gens qui sont sur le terrain.

Des études scientifiques financées et gérées par un gouvernement central sont essentielles pour prendre des décisions locales éclairées. Or, l’information ainsi cueillie et traitée se doit d’être accessible à tous. Si chaque employé de Wal-Mart peut consulter les détails de tout produit en magasin, chaque citoyen québécois doit être en mesure de consulter les plus petits détails de ses institutions publiques. L’accès à plus d’informations met les citoyens sur un pied d’égalité avec les fonctionnaires et les élus, permettant ainsi aux Québécois de se rapprocher de l’idéal grec d’une ville qui se réunit pour décider ensemble.

Si le but de la démocratie est de réaliser la volonté du peuple, les pouvoirs décisionnels doivent être remis entre ses mains. Tel que Platon l’a expliqué, “le plus grand châtiment pour l’homme de bien, s’il refuse de gouverner les autres, c’est d’être gouverné par un plus méchant que soi”. C’est donc par l’implication citoyenne que nous réussirons à faire cheminer notre société et à bâtir une démocratie moderne qui fera rayonner le Québec à travers le monde.

On Debates of Ideas


Today’s debates are terribly tame. From Charlie Rose puff pieces to debates on the CBC, we rarely see a discussion get heated or see a person truly pressed to explain the foundations of their ideas. This lack of in-depth criticism led me to start the Fight Club politique.

Our first event discussed “If Québec becomes an independent country, the Island of Montréal should declare itself a city state”. The discussion was animated and intense. In the room we had 25 people from across the political spectrum, anglophone and francophone, federalists, socialist sovereigntists, socialist federalists and even more. Just having that variety of opinion in a room was fun. Of course, nothing conclusive came of our 90 minute discussion, but the evening ended with the room divided on the motion – which means it must have been an even handed fight.

Our next event will likely try to tackle Prostitution laws in Canada. Last year, the supreme court struck down two and a half articles of the criminal code that deal with prostitution issues. The court has given the government one year to introduce legislation to bring the criminal code into line with the charter. This landmark decision create a new question, “what should prostitution law look like?”. Should it be modeled on the Nordic model or the legalization of prostitution as done in Australia, New Zealand and other places, or something else?

In preparation for more intellectual battles, I highly recommend the AlJazeera English debate show, “Head to Head“. From the episodes I have seen, you get a fantastic mix of panelists with diametrically opposed views and a very well prepared host who leaves nothing on the table. The discussions and arguments that emerge from the conflict demonstrate the complexity of the issues at hand and leave some bloodied. To train yourself for our next Fight club politique, take a look at the discussion with Richard Dawkins, Tariq Ramadan and Shlomo ben Ami. Great stuff!

Hope to see you all in May to discuss the hot topic of prostitution law, dive into moral and ethical dilemmas and propose something concrete that uses social science and ethics to help women and society move forward!

Fight club politique and other news


Despite having started a number of articles, I have not been able to finish much lately. My energy has been focused on Québec Ouvert, where we just launched I Vote for Transperency 2014 for the current provincial elections, Nimonik where we are expanding and growing our operations and finally, on a new project titled Fight Club Politique.

The political debate club is an idea that came up while reading some excellent books on the american and french revolutions (For Liberty and Glory and A short introduction to the french revolution). The idea is to have an open discussion on political issues of the day, to draw local leaders into an intellectual brawl and to have a good time. More than anything, it is an experiment.

So far, I have not determined the exact format, location or structure, I think something will emerge after a few rounds. The first proposed debate topic will likely be, “If Québec seperates from Canada, Montréal should declare itself to be a city-state”. Should be lots of fun, hope you can join!

Montréal will be remembered

Montréal will be remembered

by Jonathan Brun

Why do we remember Rome, Constantinople, Athens or other ancient cities? Culture, Art, History. No one remembers a place or an individual for their economic wealth. The few wealthy people we remember are those that gave their fortunes to charity – Rockefeller, Carney – and even then their memory fades after a couple hundred years. The people and things we remember are transmissible, they are writers, singers, playwrights, painters and sculptors. People who create.

Montréal creates. We have more world renowned artists than any other Canadian place, by far. Not only do we thrive in the arts, we also produce festivals and concerts that are known around the world. I agree we can’t spend all of our time partying, but we do build jets, amazing technology companies, trains and conduct world class research at our universities.

In addition to being a great center for the arts and sciences, Montréal is home to some of the strongest social justice activists on the continent. We have $7 a day daycare, decent free medical services, affordable housing and high social mobility. All of those services and the other ones we often don’t realize we have, cost money – they inevitably take away resources from bankers, real estate developers and other corporations who might otherwise make larger profits. Most of my anglophone educated Jewish family left in the 80s, they preferred to move away than learn a new language or change their way of being. Québec made a societal choice: we place social justice over corporate profits.

Don’t get be wrong, Montréal is far from perfect. We have corruption, infrastructure issues and a sluggish economy – but those are all more common in other cities than people care to admit. It is easy to reduce unemployment, just cut the minimum wage and abuse workers like they do in America or Germany, or destroy the environment by digging up oil and gas, like they do in Alberta and Norway. So yes, we have problems, but so does everyone else – they are just different problems.

I am born and raised in Montréal, I have traveled to many countries – both rich and poor, hot and cold – we have much to be proud of. I remain convinced that in 500 years we will be remembered. We will be remembered for a place where two languages and two religions mix peacefully, a place that fed Richler, Charlebois, Tremblay, that studied at world class universities and whose people fought for free education, free medicare and affordable housing, who built jets, trains and amazing technology companies. Yet, it is clear Montréal will not be fixed without Montréalers. We must work together to bring the city to a new level of prosperity and equality, we need every citizen’s help. What will you do?


This piece above is a rebuttal to this one:

Also see support for our gray lady here:


Ignorance, Slavery and the Illusion of Education Reform

For Education blog Post
Noam Chomsky was recently asked at his Jon Dewey Memorial lecture at Columbia University what he thought of education reform, he replied, “It is a euphemism for the dismantling of public education” (1). Lately, I have been thinking a good deal about freedom, liberty and the path to serfdom. How do you enslave people without making them realize their slavery?

There are a variety of ways and tools to enslave people: debt, ignorance, ethnic divisions, manipulation, …etc. But, I think the most powerful method is to deny people education and to devalue reasoning and science. We are managing to do both of those quite well in North America. With sky rocketing education costs and stagnant wages for low and middle income positions, many people not born to privilege must forgoe higher education. Elementary and Secondary education is also under attack through budget cuts and blind use of standardize testing (4).

The Canadian government has also mounted a full out attack on scientific research and debate (2). They closed down low-cost world class research centres such as the Experimental Lakes Area in Ontario. They have gagged government scientists and failed to appoint any top level advisers with the slightest scientific background to the Prime Minister’s office. The message is clear, education and science are out.

There is a running joke in Russia that it is the only country where you can hire a cleaning lady with a PhD. We laugh, but it is true. The Soviets did many horrible things and were no fan of individual freedom, but they did offer high quality universal education. However, a consequence of higher education is often that a person is less likely to blindly do what they are told. In North America, the dominant narrative in society is that you should consume. More goods, bigger house, better car etc. Buy more, be happy. This is a message that can be easily conveyed to people who lack analytical skills to detect when they are being manipulated.

I would be curious to know if anyone has studied the relationship between education and consumption patterns. It seems to me that the more educated you are, the less likely you are to consume material goods – but I do not know of any studies that prove it. In Québec, we have pretty affordable education, seven dollar a day daycare and high calibre primary and secondary education. Perhaps that is why storefronts in the downtown core are empty and the economy is stuttering?

Ignorance is perhaps the most powerful tool to keep someone enslaved, it is even more powerful when the person is unaware of their ignorance. Without knowledge and reasoning, we are subject to what we are told. The lack of questioning of the policies and economic principles in general Canadian society is worrisome. As public education institutions such as the CBC become commercialized due to budget cuts, higher education fees continue to rise and teacher’s pay keep getting reduced – we should ask ourselves what kind of Canada we will have in 20 years. The satirical website The Onion, perhaps put it most succinctly by asking, “Are we leaving our children far enough behind that they will never take our jobs” (3).

High quality education costs a great deal of money, because the true aim of eduction is to give a deep, meaningful understanding of a subject and allow a person to perform in a competitive real world situation. Much of the educational reforms proposed by different groups – online videos, Coursera, Khan Academy … etc. often give the illusion of high quality education, but in fact give a very superficial understanding of a subject matter.  Also, the fact that most online courses are taken in isolation of other students reduces your ability compare yourself to other students in ways that are not quantifiable. I am not saying online courses are of no use, they are great for casual learning and reinforcing general principles or digging into a specific subject – but they are no replacement for free traditional teacher based teaching.

I recall my time in engineering school and how came to realize how much better some of my peers were. My test scores were respectable, I finished with a 3.4 GPA at McGill, but I knew deep down that my depth of knowledge was not nearly as good as some of my friends. My test scores were often the result of cramming before exams, a bit of luck, on the spot reasoning and a calm demeanour during exam time. One element of my education was my appreciation of the qualities of other individuals and a clarification of my own competencies, capabilities and true passions. I fear that an isolated education leads to misplaced levels of confidence.

Paul Potts came onto the music scene in 2007 when he performed a portion of Puccini’s Nessun dorma! on the reality television show (5), “Britain’s Got Talent”. He went on to win the show and put out a series of discs. His rags to riches story was inspiring and heart warming, so when he put out his latest album, I bought a copy. It was average. At the time of his instant fame, many veteran opera singers came out and said his performance was full of mistakes and false notes. Of course, the average person who rarely listened to opera could not tell the difference, especially since it lasted no more than 30 seconds. But once you put him up in a truly competitive market – against other Opera singers – you saw all his shortcomings and his lack of years and years of formal opera training.

A similar story, though with a less happy ending, is the fall of Thomas “TJ” Webster Jr., a street basketball player. He was a down and out street ball player who believed he had a shot at the world’s most prestigious street basketball tournament. Back home, he practiced by himself or with some of the locals, whom he easily beat. His confidence was inflated beyond measure and with his meagre savings, he boarded a bus for the New York City street ball tournament. The great article in SB Nation outlines his journey and his downfall (6). Upon arrival in NYC, he entered the tournament and the gaps in his game, skills and tactics quickly rose to the surface – in the face of the very real competition. His lack of years formal training and competition in basketball camps and on college campuses killed any chance he thought he had. There was no replacement for years of gruelling work and competition in the furnace of college sports.

Though there are a few cases of lone self taught geniuses such as Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan (7), the vast majority of excellence is born through mass high quality education in a competitive and collaborative environment. The short story about education is that there are no shortcuts. Someone who says they have a magic solution to high quality education is either ignorant, naive or has ulterior motives. Education reform is possible, but it should be done in very small and measured dosses and frankly, any improvement in education will require more resources – not less. We want to build Pavarottis and Lebron James, not Paul Potts and TJs.

To ensure we build a strong society, we must improve our education system and be very cautious of any education reform that does not involve more resources and importance on the quality of education. The Finnish education system is amongst the best and it unsurprisingly includes very high teacher pay, smaller classrooms and not much of a reliance on technology (8). It is essential that we stand up for very high quality free education for all.



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The State of The Poppy


Alpha Delta Phi Memorial (McGill) Brothers on the front during WW1.

Walking around Toronto and Montréal these days, it is remarkable how few people are sporting poppies. To be fair, I grew up at an anglophone all-boy school and then joined a fraternity with strong military ties at McGill, so between November 1st and November 11th poppies were everywhere. The fraternity was in fact renamed the Memorial Chapter because over 30 brothers died in each world war. Of course, the horrors of war have disappeared from our lives, thanks to international agreements, democracy and darker things too – mercenaries and drones who do our dirty work for us. Keeping the dogs of war at bay requires constant education, the active promotion of peace and so that we always remember the tremendous price we once did pay.I am a passionate proponent of non-violence and have argued for wearing a white poppy. However, wearing no poppy is far worse than either a red or white poppy.

Are the lack of poppies a reflection of continued separation of the individual from the national identity? Are we so absorbed by Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones or Occupation Double that we cannot pause to donate a few dollars to our veterans associations and ponder the lives lost during war? With civil war raging in Syria, a counter-revolution in Egypt, drone attacks in Yemen and Pakistan, massacres of Muslims in Burma and innumerable other conflicts of suffering and pain, surely we can take a bit of time to reflect about war and violence in our society. A nation is by definition a series of individuals bound by culture and traditions; otherwise, we become a bunch of autonomous individuals engaged in financial transactions. History and shared experience form the bedrock of our national identity.

With decreasing historical knowledge across Canada, it is not surprising to see less poppies. Ignorance of history is a dangerous path to tread down, we will be prone to repeat the errors of the past and our defences to new assaults will be weakened. As Cicero stated, “To not know history is to forever be a child”. As far as I can tell, the lack of poppies are not restricted to the young, new Canadians or any particular group of people – it seems to be widespread and troubling. With the Conservative government cutting and slashing veterans’ affairs and pensions for soldiers, it is a better time than ever to show national solidarity. You need not agree with war in general or our interventions in Afghanistan, I certainly do not. But demonstrating you know about the wars we have fought and are currently fighting is a way to show you care about Canada, its history, about your family and about your neighbours. This year, I decided to wear both a white and red poppy because I believe in helping the veterans and in promoting peace, I hope you will join me.

Photo on 2013-11-05 at 4.03 PM #2

Personal Democracy Forum (PDF) 2013 – Thinking Small

For the second time, I attended the Personal Democracy Forum (PDF) in New York City in June 2013. The lineup of speakers was excellent, I got to see the great Ethan Zuckerman from the MIT Civic Lab, Sasha Issenberg, author of the Victory Lab, Robin Chase founder of ZipCar and many more. The conference was titled “Think bigger”, but despite the heavyweight attendees, PDF 2013 seemed focused on small incremental change.

There has been a recent war of words between technology detractors such as Evgeny Morozev and tech promoters such as Tim O’Reilly. Basically, Evgeny accuses much of Silicon Valley of paying blind faith to technology’s ability to solve problems. Some tech promoters argue that with more computing power, a better algorithm or distributed intelligence, social problems will be solved through innovation. Who am I to judge, but if tech evangelists’ faith were true, surely we would expect a better situation in 2013. If we applied a more technology = good equation; America, home to the most advanced technological firms in the world, should be the beacon of social justice and equal opportunity.

Many talks at PDF discussed volunteer mobilization strategies for elections, crowd funding campaigns, increasing transparency in politics and other applications of technology to politics, government and civil society. However, no speaker dared mention that only 55% of people vote in US Presidential elections and from the president to the city level, there are only two political parties in the entire United States. It seems the world of tech promoters confuses operational management with investment strategy.

In a government budget, you have two main sections – operations and major investments, they are distinct and managed differently. There is little doubt that open data and technology have an important role to play in improving operational management, we can automate, streamline, digitize and publish information for internal and external use. The nature of the government – autocratic, democratic or tyrannical – matters little to this, a pot hole is a pot hole is a pothole. However, applying technology to large scale complex social issues that require massive investment rarely provides meaningful improvement. If a system is fundamentally flawed at its roots, you cannot fix it with an app.

The world’s wealthiest societies’ list of societal problems are long and damning. Fifty years ago, who would have thought that  the United States of 2013 would have over 2.2 million people in jail, 32 states would still have the death penalty and more than 50 million Americans would live in poverty? No technology can solve these failures. There is no such thing as a better death penalty, better segregation, or better poverty – there are only absolute goals. Despite our clear failings to address our most basic problems, the speakers and participants at the Personal Democracy Forum seem oblivious to the reality outside their tech bubble, or if they do know about it, they dare not whisper its name.

Many of these problems have been solved elsewhere. Yet, the people in power seem uninterested in solving them or perhaps they have their reasons not to. To maintain power you must do many things, but one key task is to be a master of distraction. You must deviate your potential competition from meaningful endeavours that might undermine your power. To get your most talented opponents to focus their forces on side battles is an essential tool in any ruler’s arsenal. In the same way magicians divert their audience away from their slight of hand, the powerful distract the competition from undermining their pillars of support. Yes, we must also have bread and circuses for the masses who might join with the competition. But the educated, wealthy, intelligent people at Personal Democracy Forum are the competition to the rulers, not the masses.

In many ways, too many projects discussed at the conference come across as side shows that will not fundamentally change anything. Just because you can engineer something, does not mean you should or that it will be useful. Nico Mele was repeatedly quoted as having stated, “The best minds of my generation are working on getting people to click on more ads”. I would add, “The best noble minds of my generation are working on incremental change to a fundamentally broken system”. We expose campaign finance trails on multi-billion dollar elections, we adopt hydrants in cities with rampant poverty, and we expose crime statistics while millions rot in jail. We must focus our resources on the root of our problems – not the symptoms.

Few, if any, fundamental questions were asked at PDF 2013. It seems all the speakers assumed that the current forms of government, voting and American democracy may be defective, but with just one more app, a little more elbow grease and some hard work – the system can be made to work. No participant or speaker mentioned our moral obligations to each other, our duty to sacrifice, or our need to rally around a common cause. Just apply an upgrade and reboot.

Here are a few words I never heard uttered at the conference: “sacrifice”, “common good”, “large government programs”, “revolution”, “increased taxation”, “new forms of taxation”, “constitutional congress”, or “attack pillars of support”. Everyone at PDF seems to believe that we can keep what we have and find innovative solutions to massive social problems. No sacrifices required.

TEDxMontreal, where I spoke, was sick with the same disease. One speaker at TEDxMontreal outlined a new stove he built for rural Indian villagers. The stove replaced dirty indoor open fires with cleanly burned pelletized farm waste, helping reduce lung diseases caused by smoke inhalation. At PDF 2013, a talk outlined a plan to deliver medicine to poor towns in in Africa with drone technology; no need for roads, simply fly in the medicine. These two proposals are massive cop-outs from fundamental, large-scale foundational projects of running gas lines and electric cables, laying rail and paving roads. Infrastructure projects have innumerable side benefits, one of which is to build community ties and lift a country to a new level of development. Compare India to China and the progress made in the last 35 years. Heck, compare the Soviet Union from 1910 to 1980 to Brazil in the same period. I dare you, look it up. Common sacrifice is what nation building is all about. There are certain massive investments that require sacrifice by all for the common good, something we need more of. We cannot shortcut success with technology hacks.

The list of patches to a broken society that were presented at Personal Democracy Forum was long. Some people argued that massive amounts of money in American politics was a non-issue because a favourite candidate with more money lost to a slightly less financed campaign. Or, if campaign financing is transparent, people will take it into account when voting. Any reasonable analysis demonstrates money in politics is a toxic force. Want a solution that does not involve technology? In Québec, we unanimously passed a law that limits campaign donations to 125$ per person per year and no corporate donations and campaign expenditures to 6 million dollars. This is the most progressive campaign finance law in the world. Removing money from politics (on both the revenue and the expense side) is fundamental to a functioning democracy. No app required.

Think voting needs to be made more efficient? The team of Kate Kronis and Kathryn Peters are proposing new technology for running elections and counting votes. Do you recall the hanging chad technology of Florida? They have a solution – more technology! Want an easy to use solution with no technology, high accuracy and easy recount ability? In Canada, we go to the polling station, fill out an ultra-simple paper ballot and we then manually count them (see photo above).

Despite my cynicism, there are of course some interesting technological projects that could fundamentally change things, or be used by agents of change. I love the Pirate Party’s Liquid Feedback system, the new collaborative Icelandic constitution, driverless cars and online participatory budgeting. At Personal Democracy Forum, I felt too many of the bright talented people who could change the world were engaged in a small side games – not realizing the real power-play at hand. Bumping voter turnout by 1% when only 55% vote in a two party system is not meaningful success. They were blinded by the light of technology, hoping our next great technology will change it all.

In conclusion, I propose some actual big ideas that others have already implemented with great success: Free higher education, dirt cheap daycare for children, a base salary for all citizens, decriminalization of marijuana and other drugs, mass pardons of prisoners, mass debt forgiveness, a manned mission to mars, increased taxes on financial transactions, a new constitutional congress, a new election system based on preferential voting and mixed representation, strong privacy laws and no money in politics. Now put away the iPhone and get to work!

Links of interest

Larry Lessig on Republic Lost – Money in Politics
Clean Burning Stoves at TEDxMontreal
Drone medicine delivery
Law on campaign finance in Quebec
Evegny Morozev on Tim O’Reilly
Tim O’Reilly responding (can’t find it, but it’s somewhere on the internet)
Ethan Zuckerman Vancouver Human Right’s Lecture on the Arab Spring
Sasha Issenberg’s Victory Lab
George Packer: Can Silicon Valley Embrace Politics? : The New Yorker

Why you should care about government surveillance


“They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”Benjamin Franklin

For the same reason you buy home insurance, you should stand against government surveillance. The recent revelations of the National Security Agency (NSA) PRISM project that collects electronic communications are shocking – though not surprising. Under this program and others, the US Government actively monitors electronic communication of most Americans and most Canadians speaking with Americans. The NSA watches us in the name of security. They claim the collected information helps prevent catastrophic terrorist attacks, a sort of Minority Report that predicts crimes before they happen. We consent to this in the name of security. Is the exchange of freedom for temporary peace worth the cost?

If we define freedom as the freedom from oppression and the freedom to act as we desire, within the constraints of democratically enacted law, then it follows that we are no longer free. These surveillance programs remove your most basic freedom – whether you realize it or not. You cannot act freely if your thoughts, relationships, and speech are constantly monitored and analyzed; you end up in constant fear of oppression by the state. Did you know Ernest Hemingway committed suicide due to depression, compounded by constant surveillance by the FBI because of socialist sympathies?

The threat of force is usually enough to exert power. With your phone records, emails, Facebook messages and GPS locations; one day, when convenient, the people who have this information can ruin your life. Since the average citizen breaks three laws a day by speeding, paying cash, or fishing out of season – you are already guilty of something and the prosecutors already have all the evidence they need. No matter how hard you try or how good you think you are, you will break the law, some law, and the record is stored in a server farm, not so far away. Of course you will likely never be prosecuted, but one day that can all change.

Most of us buy home insurance to protect against catastrophic events – fire, flood, or tornadoes. We fear losing something precious and expensive, so we pay a fee just in case. Since you could opt for a vacation instead of insurance premiums, you are sacrificing current pleasure for peace of mind. With massive government surveillance programs, nothing stands between a zealous prosecutor (read: flood) and a destroyed life. A principal lever to restrict power is to restrict information. The creation of barriers between government and citizens might cost security today, but they offer freedom tomorrow. The power of government is well demonstrated by the prosecution of activists. This year, when faced with 25 years behind jail and mountains of legal bills for trying to help free publicly funded information, Aaron Schwartz killed himself – like Hemingway. Bradly Manning, the person behind Cablegate, is in jail indefinitely. Mandela spent 25 years in jail. The list is long.

It is not just activists who need fear the hammer of the judge. The well intentioned citizen who may have toked up in college, drank one too many beers, driven a little too fast or forgot to declare a little income has just as much to fear when those above him know every detail of every mistake he ever made. Want to run for mayor or take down a crooked politician? Forget it. Your competitors have all the details on your mistress, your drinking habits, and they can bring out that email you sent to your ex-girlfriend after a few too many drinks. The threat to harm is as powerful as the actual blow.

Freedom costs something. If we want a free society, we must give up certain short term comforts. We decided that our justice system should let some guilty criminals go free to ensure fewer innocent citizens are jailed. Today, we presume innocence and the government must prove you are guilty without a reasonable doubt. Mass surveillance removes the barriers between the citizen and the government, the consequences are a shackled society where we all live in fear and our actions are restricted. Freedom requires walls between centres of power, it requires limiting what government, companies and each of us know about each other. To know everything about everyone is to be all powerful. A surveillance state is the closest thing we have to an all-knowing, all powerful, judgmental Catholic God who sends us to hell for our inevitable sinful thoughts.

Democracy was conceived to remove absolute monarchs and distribute power amongst the people. Lincoln’s democracy, based on a “government of the people, by the people, for the people” will perish from this earth if it possesses a window into our minds. If you voluntarily give your hard earned liberties to secret government courts, private interests and power hungry institutions, do not expect them back anytime soon. If and when they decide to come for you, it will be at their convenience. The bag-men don’t come when the sun shines and the world watches, they come at night.


The well known poem by pastor Martin Niemöller rings very true.

First they came for the communists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.

Then they came for the socialists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.

Then they came for me,
and there was no one left to speak for me.

Links of interest

Open Data Muscle


Canadian open data needs to get pumped up! In the past year, the UK government has announced a 10 million pound investment into the  Open Data Institute and the Google Foundation gave over 1.6 million dollars to the UK group MySociety and over 2.1 million to the US Sunlight Foundation. In Canada, we have yet to see a similar engagement from a government, a private individual or foundations.

Without adequate resources, the open data enthusiasts in Canada will be unable to compete with their UK or US counterparts. The limited supply of software developers who are passionate about technology, transparency and government will be drawn to companies that can put bread on the table. Jurisdictions with political leadership and who offer long term financial backing to talented developers and designers will develop the open data ecosystem first. Their technologies will eventually be implemented in Canada, when the data becomes available, but the brains and jobs will stay firmly planted offshore.

Canada’s Scientific Research and Development program supports thousands of tech companies across Canada, but non-profits are ineligible. Québec poured money into video games and aerospace, Ontario supported Waterloo’s RIM and the car industry and Alberta has the Tar Sands. We need an investment program for government data analysis and use. If open data apps can improve government and public service performance by just 1%, the returns will be massive.

Despite lots of talk, no provincial, municipal or federal government in Canada has shown leadership on open data in the form that matters most – money. Like it or not, without substantial financial support from government, projects such as OpenParliament, What Do They Know, Represent or MaMairie cannot survive. In addition to user facing applications, groups across the country need support to ensure our outdated access to information laws are reformed, that democratic institutions are modernized and that citizens take action on pressing social issues. If Sweden brought its deficit from nearly 80% of GDP to under 33% through the modernization of its democratic institutions, we can do the same and open government is part of the solution.

Jake Porway, of DataKind, recently wrote a great piece in the Harvard Business Review outlining the need to increase the financing behind open data. We need to somehow convince Canadian foundations, citizens, companies and governments of the pressing need to invest real cash into open data and apps. Without the build up of talent and resources, weekend Hackathon projects will continue to be just that: weekend projects. We need institutional capacity to affect political change. Who will have the courage to take a risk on Canada’s burgeoning open data community?

The Value of Democracy

Civic participation isn’t for everyone. In the non-profit and democratic fields, we too often attempt to convert the general public to our worldview that all citizens should be actively engaged in their communities, participate in votes, attend public assemblies and actively engage with their elected officials. This idealistic view of society drives many folks towards apathy and a perception that we’re a bunch of goodie-two-shoes.

If we are honest, most folks want a safe neighbourhood, a strong economy and fair opportunities of their children to succeed in society. While those elements absolutly require strong democratic institutions and an active population; we should not expect everyone to get engaged. The vast majority of our lives are managed by other people, plumbers plumb, electricians electrify, aerospace engineers build airplanes, painters paint, and bakers bake; why should democratic institution building be different?

Democratic activists improve democracy. Just as people are willing to pay for good plumbing, they should be willing to open their pocketbooks to improve democracy. The challenge then becomes to demonstrate the value of a strong democracy and its overarching impact on their lives and then allow them citizen to easily contribute towards our work. With the financial support of our fellow citizens, great things can be accomplished by the staff at Open North, the Sunlight Foundation, MySociety and other groups. The task at hand is to effectively communicate of the value of democracy and the urgency of change, two tasks that are harder than one might imagine.

P.S. Sorry for the lack of posts, see QuebecOuvert and Nimonik for my more recent blog posts.

Political vision and daringness


Today’s politicians seem to be play to the centre; not the political centre, but the intellectual centre. Instead of grand, bold, crazy ideas such as putting a man to the moon, eradicating horrible diseases, or fundamentally reforming society through constitutional amendments, they propose moderate reforms that risk few upset stomachs.

The lack of vision saddens me. In our times of global economic turmoil, changing world order and environmental challenge, we need bold people willing to take risks. Nations remember the dreamers and doers not the tinkerers, we love the ones who dared us to extend our self-image to new heights. Our fascination and admiration of these people is easily confirmed by a cursory glance at our history books or by polls such as the one that puts Trudeau as our most popular prime minister. While historical romance may not be the best test of quality leadership, it is a sign of their impact on the country. While Trudeau had more than his fair share of enemies and he put Canada on the road to financial catastrophe, we love him for his daringness and his refusal to compromise. We need more people like that.

Why are so few politicians willing to dream big today? The canadian David Foot once stated, “Two thirds of everything can be explained by demographics” and interestingly, the population during the tenure of many of our great leaders was significantly younger than today. The reckless youth that were once the base of change are now aging baby boomers concerned with cashing out their home equity and retiring in comfort. Our lack of boldness is due to more than an aging population, but it certainly plays a role.

As the thinker Slavok Zizek recently put it, “The philosopher Jean-Claude Milner recently proposed the notion of the “stabilising class”: not the old ruling class, but all who are committed to the stability and continuity of the existing social, economic and political order – the class of those who, even when they call for a change, do so to ensure that nothing really will change. The key to electoral success in today’s developed states is winning over this class… The majority who voted for him [Obama] were put off by the radical changes advocated by the Republican market and religious fundamentalists.” Though that might be an over-simplification of Obama’s victory, there is an essence of truth: the electorate seems highly risk averse and afraid to think of a different world that might be.

The the radical changes proposed by the tea party, the evangelical right, the Occupy movement and even the more moderate student protests in Québec were too much for the middle class to swallow. Yet, the frustration that has boiled to the surface on both the right and the left expresses a deep frustration with our political system. Our  current trajectory of environmental destruction, increased debt and lack of social mobility must change much faster if we hope to avoid dire consequences.

From Drapeau in Montréal to Levesque in Québec to Trudeau in Canada, bold visionaries forge history, not the elected administrators we have today. The fact that the daring ones got elected and re-elected multiple times is a testament to their ability to enthral a nation, set a bold vision and execute – even if not perfectly. Today’s Canadian political landscape is sadly devoid of intellectual depth and leadership willing to upset the status quo or challenge our assumptions – yet, that is exactly what we need, more than ever (1). I’m convinced citizens are hungry for it; someone just needs to step up to the plate dare us.

In the private sector, Elon Musk is changing the world. After co-founding Paypal and selling it for billions, he set about revolutionizing the solar panel industry, creating electric cars and putting people in space. He aims to get us off fossil fuels and make humans a multi-planetary species, ambitious might be an understatement. Despite the grandeur of his goals he is succeeding. The Tesla Model S electric sedan just won Motor Trend Car of the year and Space X has launched two successful shipments to the International Space Station. He has created the greatest car in the world, that happens to be electric, and he has reduced space travel costs by over 95% (yes, you read that right). He did what most said was impossible and he did it with far less means than the current players in the market. If he can do it in technology, someone can do it in politics. We need a political Elon Musk.

P.S. Of course, the classic Apple Ad “The Crazy Ones” says this better than I can.

(1) See Foreign Policy top 100 thinkers and the lack of any Canadians on the list.

On Debt and the Rolling Jubilee from Occupy

Bourdon, Sébastien (1616-1671) The Selling of Joseph into Slavery


The Occupy mouvement that took hold in 2011 has transformed its efforts into something quite interesting. They recently launched the Rolling Jubilee, a program to use past and new donations to purchase and forgive distressed debt from individuals (see Guardian article). The aim is to relieve pressure from people who are being chased by debt collectors and allow them to rebuild their lives. Because it targets distressed debt being sold on secondary markets, the Rolling Jubilee can be purchase debt for pennies on the dollar. They claim to be able to purchase $1ooo of distressed debt for only $50.

Few doubt that debt loads are serious problem in our society. With consumer and household debt near record highs, this financial ball and chain inhibits investments in businesses, harms communities, slows new purchases and reduces our ability to relaunch the economy. As described in the amazing article “Debt: The first five thousand years“, debt forgiveness has been with us since debt itself, “Biblical prophets instituted a similar custom, the Jubilee, whereby after seven years all debts were similarly cancelled.” A modern massive debt forgiveness program would have a significant impact, freeing millions of people to reinvest in our societies.

The Rolling Jubilee from Occupy and debt forgiveness programs in general should not be employed for everyone at once. Instead, debt annulments should target people who incurred large medical expenses, unforeseen accidents or who invested in education. Debt incurred during times of duress is the classic path towards bondage and indentured labour. Releasing people from their debts is akin to blowing fresh air into society. The Rolling Jubilee claims 62% of US bankruptcies are due to medical accidents, so their program should help individuals who needed medical assistance, but lacked insurance coverage. However, because student debt cannot be resold on secondary markets, the rolling jubilee is not capable of purchasing and forgiving student loans.

Student debt, currently over 14 billion dollars in Canada, is a huge restriction on economic growth (see article). Young people, looking to invest in a home, have children and make big purchases after graduation inevitably have to put those decisions off until they can relieve some student debt. This harms all of us. And, as a nation we could accelerate that debt repayment. Similar to Occupy’s Rolling Jubilee, the government and individuals could create a debt matching program where any student loan repayment is matched, or more, by a fund, allowing individuals to pay back their loans much faster.

Such a repayment matching program would encourage responsible individuals to prioritize student loan repayment and would reward people who spent their money on education. The freed individuals will be more likely to purchase homes, buy cars and have children – helping lift the economy out of the doldrums, grow tax revenues and restore confidence in our country.

A massive debt forgiveness program for students, individuals with medical issues and other unforeseen accidents would be a noble and efficient path towards a renewed Canada.


P.S. Of course, a long term solution to student loans would be to reduce tuition fees and innovate in education delivery mechanisms, but one thing at a time! (see my other article in french here).

P.P.S. Also watch the Al Jazeera series on modern slavery to see how 27 million modern slaves were often entrapped through debt.

La hausse des frais de scolarité au Québec

La crise étudiante de 2012 a déjà fait couler beaucoup d’encre, mais je propose néanmoins d’offrir quelques réflexions. Avec l’élection du Parti Québecois, il semble que la crise soit terminée –  enfin, pour le moment. Lors des démonstrations du printemps dernier, j’ai eu de nombreuses discussions avec des personnes des deux côtés du débat. Les arguments avancés étaient sensibles et logiques; financement des universités, juste part vs. accessibilité pour tous les étudiants. Ils n’allaient toutefois pas toujours au fond de la question de la juste valeur de l’éducation supérieure et des priorités d’une société.

J’avoue que je n’ai pas participé aux manifestations, mais je ne soutenais pas non plus la hausse proposée. Je crois que la situation est plus complexe et nuancée que les positions simplistes de l’ancien gouvernement et des associations étudiantes. Selon moi, notre but en tant que société devrait être d’offrir un système d’éducation accessible à tous les jeunes avec des frais de scolarité modulés selon le salaire et le diplôme obtenu.

Il est objectivement vrai que la vie des jeunes finissants universitaires est plus difficile aujourd’hui qu’elle l’était en 1965 ou en 1985. Les emplois sont plus précaires, moins accessibles et moins rémunérés. Le logement coûte beaucoup plus cher, même en tenant compte de l’inflation, et beaucoup de jeunes se demandent comment ils vont faire pour acheter une maison et élever une famille sans s’endetter à vie. Ces craintes et angoisses sont une des grandes sources des manifestations et réclamations des jeunes Québécois et Québécoises (on constate les mêmes craintes dans le mouvement mondial d’Occupons Wall Street en 2012).

Il demeure néanmoins que beaucoup de gouvernements à travers le monde peinent à combler leurs budgets et qu’ils sont nombreux à couper dans les programmes sociaux. Au Québec et ailleurs, les dépenses d’État grimpent sans cesse, dû à un système de santé qui doit servir une population vieillissante et le besoin d’investir dans le renouvellement des infrastructures.

Au Québec, nous avons déjà les impôts les plus élevés en Amérique du Nord et nous venons d’augmenter les taxes de ventes, ce qui affecte particulièrement les personnes de la classe moyenne. Même avec ces efforts, nous sommes une province pauvre. En 2012, le Québec recevra près de 4,4 milliards de dollars en transferts de péréquation. Cette situation ne peut durer, surtout avec un gouvernement fédéral conservateur et les négociations des transferts de péréquation en 2013. Il faut donc absolument trouver des moyens d’améliorer l’efficacité des services publics et de les rendre plus “intelligents”.

Pour résoudre des problèmes de société comme la hausse des frais de scolarité, il faut entamer un dialogue de société. D’une part, on doit mieux comprendre et exposer les états financiers de nos institutions d’enseignement (voir article de Québec Ouvert). D’autre part, les étudiants doivent comprendre qu’il faut modifier le système actuel. Une démocratie qui fonctionne demande l’action constructive des citoyens et du gouvernement. Trop souvent, les citoyens revendiquent sans offrir de travailler à trouver des solutions réalisables. Ce manque de communication oblige le gouvernement à prendre des décisions sans la participation des citoyens concernés, ce qui peut mener à des manifestations comme nous en avons connues.

Le principe qui devrait guider nos discussions à propos des frais de scolarité est simple : garantir l’accessibilité de notre système d’éducation à chaque Québécois et Québécoise. Si nous sommes en accord sur notre but, la question devient alors comment fait-on?

Mon profond désir pour le Québec est que nous devenons une méritocratie. Une société où les personnes peuvent monter et descendre les échelles socioéconomiques selon leurs compétences et éthiques de travail. Pour cela, il est absolument essentiel d’avoir un système d’éducation accessible à tous les citoyens car l’éducation est le meilleur moyen pour égaliser le terrain de jeu entre les couches sociales.

Des études démontrent qu’il y a peu de corrélation entre le coût d’un diplôme universitaire et l’accessibilité, mais beaucoup entre l’accès et la mobilité sociale. Le gel des frais de scolarité proposé par les étudiants est une approche « bulldozeur » où l’on devrait employer un couteau. Pourquoi ne pas augmenter les frais d’un diplôme médical qui coûte beaucoup plus cher à offrir et qui mène à un emploi quasi garanti avec un salaire de 150 000$? Mis à part quelques professions, il est vrai qu’il est impossible de prévoir la valeur d’un diplôme, ce système n’est donc pas simple à implanter. Il s’agit toutefois d’une bonne piste de reflexion.

D’un autre côté, il semble logique que l’on offre la gratuité scolaire pour des bacs en histoire, philosophie et autres domaines qui offrent moins de possibilités d’emploi, mais qui enrichissent la vie des étudiants et la culture générale de notre société. Ces diplômés en histoire et en arts pourront ensuite s’investir dans une formation plus technique telle que la médecine, le droit et l’ingénierie qui proposent de meilleures opportunités d’emploi. L’excellent article du magazine Walrus explique clairement les difficultés démographiques et socio-économiques de notre système d’éducation actuel.

Pour offrir une éducation de qualité à un prix abordable ou nul, il nous faut une économie qui fonctionne. Le mouvement étudiant du printemps 2012 s’est trop mêlé avec des mouvements anticapitalistes et anarchistes en visant le Grand Prix de Montréal, Power Corporation ou les banques. Peu de citoyens de la classe moyenne croient à présent dans une vision anarchiste ou anticapitaliste. Ils sont plutôt de l’opinion que la richesse d’une société provient des entreprises qui emploient des personnes, produisent des produits et paient des impôts. Nos écoles, musées, arts et cultures ont besoin d’un secteur privé fort, responsable et stable. L’inverse est également vrai, les entreprises ont besoin de citoyens et travailleurs bien instruits. Lorsque j’ai traversé la Russie, j’ai souvent entendu la blague que c’est le seul pays où l’on peut embaucher une femme de ménage détenant un doctorat.

Comme vous l’aurez deviné, je n’ai pas de solution magique à proposer à ce problème de société. Je souhaite tout de même proposer quelques idées qui pourraient aider à moderniser nos institutions d’éducation et améliorer leur état fiscal.

1. Gratuité pour certains diplômes

Je propose la gratuité scolaire pour certains diplômes et des hausses des frais de scolarité pour d’autres. Un baccalauréat en histoire n’est pas la même chose qu’un diplôme en médecine. Geler tous les frais pour tous les programmes, comme le propose les associations étudiantes, c’est l’équivalent de mettre le même prix sur tous les produits dans un supermarché. En augmentant les frais de scolarité pour tout le monde, on finit par encourager les personnes à se concentrer dans des professions qui sont rentables. Cela risque de mener à une société sans fond culturel, philosophique et politique — bref, sans profondeur.

À ce sujet, le système australien, que je ne prétends pas connaître en détails, me semble logique. Les frais de scolarité dépendent du salaire après les études. Par exemple, si une personne fait des études en droit et devient avocat en droit des affaires, celle-ci doit payer plus de frais de scolarité qu’un avocat pratiquant en droit social par exemple. En modulant les frais de scolarité selon le salaire après les études, nous communiquerons mieux la valeur d’une éducation tout en garantissant la liberté de choisir ses études sans crainte d’endettement excessif. Cette approche rend le financement du système d’éducation plus intelligent (même le président Obama propose quelque chose de semblable aux États-Unis).

2. Transparence dans les états financiers des universités

Comme l’initiative populaire Québec Ouvert (dont je suis cofondateur) l’a très bien décrit, nous devons augmenter la transparence des finances de nos institutions d’enseignement. Si le public et les étudiants ne peuvent pas facilement analyser les finances, comment peut-on proposer des solutions? Les états financiers, les dépenses et les salaires des employés devraient être rendus publics en format ouvert et numérique. Avec ces informations, les étudiants pourront davantage être en mesure de participer aux grandes décisions et aider dans la gestion de leur université.

3. Diffuser gratuitement le contenu des universités québécoises en ligne

Il faut non seulement moderniser la gestion financière, mais aussi les méthodes d’enseignement. À ma connaissance, il n’y a aucune université québécoise qui diffuse gratuitement les cours sur Internet. Pourtant, des universités américaines telles que MIT et Stanford le font depuis plusieurs années. La diffusion des cours serait un moyen d’offrir plus d’éducation aux Québecois, de faire rayonner nos institutions à l’extérieur du Québec et de valoriser le travail de nos professeurs et chercheurs. On pourrait contribuer à Open CourseWare (OCW) ou à d’autres programmes d’enseignement gratuits en ligne. Des cours tel que Justice à Harvard aide à diffuser la philosophie morale à des millions de personnes à travers le monde et Khan Academy aide les étudiants à l’école secondaire (voir son TED Talk). Cela pourrait également contribuer à augmenter l’intérêt des étudiants à fréquenter l’université et réduire le décrochage scolaire en démontrant ce que les universités ont à offrir.

4. Révolutionner la publication des livres scolaires

Nous pourrions également embarquer dans la libération d’information d’enseignement en rendant les livres de cours gratuits sur Internet à tous les niveaux du système d’éducation. L’industrie du livre d’éducation est déjà très connue pour ses moyens néfastes d’extraire le plus d’argent possible des étudiants (billet en anglais ici et commentaires). Le Québec pourrait devenir un exemple à travers le monde en encourageant nos professeurs à créer ou à collaborer pour offrir des livres libre source sur internet. En travaillant à libérer nos connaissances et les offrir aux autres, les institutions d’enseignement québécoises rayonneront à l’échelle internationale et pourront aider l’enseignement dans des pays francophones en voie de développement. La Californie vient de signer une loi qui permettra la création de livres de cours en format ouvert et qui aidera à réduire les coûts d’enseignement. Et lors d’un Hackathon en Finlande, des professeurs ont créé un livre gratuit en ligne pour leurs étudiants.

Certes ces idées proposées semblent peut être dramatiques et demandent un changement de culture profond, mais je crois que nous pourrons seulement résoudre nos problèmes de société en apportant des changements majeurs. Il faut s’attaquer à la racine de nos problèmes, pas simplement appliquer des pansements temporaires. Nos institutions d’enseignement ont été conçues pour le 20ième siècle sans internet, nous devons les moderniser en tenant compte des possibilité de diffusion de contenu, de partage de responsabilité et de transparence de gestion.

Il n’y a pas de solution facile à ces problèmes, mais il est évident que nous ne pouvons pas continuer sur la voie actuelle. Le gouvernement et les étudiants doivent laisser leurs positions idéologiques derrière eux et changer le paradigme dans lequel notre système d’éducation se trouve. La justice sociale ne se règlera pas cet automne, il est donc essentiel que nous entamions une discussion de profondeur à propos de nos valeurs de société et de nos institutions d’enseignement.

L’article par Clay Shirky à propos de l’éducation en ligne est fortement recomendé.

On Silent Films

My two favourite films are Baraka and now, Samsara. Both are silent movies that travel the globe in exquisite detail. Far too many movies use speech, sound effects and music as a form of filler for mediocre stories, images, and acting. These two films show you factory farms, sex workers, garbage pickers, wealth, poverty, and beautiful art – but they do not tell you what to think. In many ways I find the experience more fulfilling. The absence of a narrator seems to be a sign of respect by the director for the audience’s intelligence. That respect conveyed through emptiness is perhaps what differentiates art from entertainment. Art makes you think, entertainment tells you what to think – or not to think.

Manufactured Landscapes and Koyaanisqatsi are similar, but lack a je ne sais quoi. That’s all I have to say.

Blue Monochrome byYves Klein

Oh and who can forget Chaplin’s one and only use of speaking film:

There are no shortcuts

National debt, taxes and government inefficiency are regular dinner table talk these days. The discussion usually boils down to: pro-government save the poor vs. anti-(big)-government do-it-yourself arguments. Both sides have valid points and deserve being listened to, but when push comes to shove, there is no denying that the services we take for granted cost lots of money. Fire trucks, roads, schools, hospitals are expensive and cuts are harder than most people think.

Working in China in 2005 was my first in-depth experience in a emerging country. Of all the things I learned there, the lack of public services really hit home. It was only by going to China and later to other developing countries, that I realized the vast amount of relatively high quality services we have. From retirement homes, to the justice system, to free healthcare and honest police; our government provides a lot of services.

Could some of our services be delivered more efficiently, handed over to the private sector or given back to the citizens? Of course. But on the whole, I firmly believe that high quality and costly services are a required ingredient of a free society. To deliver those services, we need large and robust intitutions. Michael Ignatieff’s point that “government is the granite under our feet” is accurate. Yet, what matters most is not the rate of taxation or the size of government, but rather the perceived value of those taxes. As when you go shopping, we want our money’s worth.

Unsurprisingly, we continue to think there is a better, faster and easier way – the grass is always greener on the other side. Way back in the late 20th century, we were proclaiming the rise of the Asian Tigers as a new economic powerhouse. Their growth was a steady 10% and they seemed invincible, yet it all came to a screeching halt in 1997 with the asian financial crisis. Paul Krugman’s seminal paper The Myth of Asia’s Miracle on the frailty of South East Asian economies in 1994 prophetically predicted the outcome. His point can be boiled down to diminishing returns on investment as your economy grows. Infrastructure in an emerging country is an easy win, it’s easy to get 10% growth when you dodge environmental laws, build basic infrastructure, skip over worker’s rights and pay minimal heed to a functioning justice system. For a while, you can achieve amazing growth – the Soviet Union did it between 1930 – 1970 and China is doing it now, but eventually, your lack of institutional human infrastructure catches up with you. (see Three little pigs case study)

Some countries avoid the pitfalls of relying on easy growth – South Korea comes to mind, but most fail. While we bemoan the low growth in the EU and the US, we fail to realize it is the natural evolution of the system. It is not that you cannot continue to grow once you are a developed economy, but rather that economic growth becomes harder and harder. However, the value of the extra dollar of growth in a developing country has far more resilience than in a country lacking infrastructure. Not all dollars are equal, an extra GDP point in a country where you respect the environment and worker’s rights is more valuable than a GDP point where you do not. Not morally more valuable, but tangibly more valuable; the dollar of GDP is more durable, can withstand more shock and is more robust. Canada’s Tar Sands driven growth is a mirage, just as Baku was once a prosperous economy, Alberta’s growth is based on a depleting resource with increasing extraction costs. Alberta, and Canada, should follow the Norwegian practice and pour oil profits into a safe fund for the future.

There are many instances of decisions we have taken as society to reduce growth in the name of social stability and human rights. From union protecting laws to our complex justice system, we place citizens before GDP. Building up intelligent environmental laws might slow economic growth temporarily, but it will reinforce the foundation of our economy and lay the ground for long term stability.

Our admittedly imperfect legal system is a prime example of doing the right thing despite gigantic costs. It is extremely expensive to have due process and it’s much, much cheaper to torture or just toss people in jail. China’s failure to modernize its legal system will inevitably bite it in the butt. In fact, the lack of due process already drives many wealthy Chinese to flee their homeland for Canada and the US.

So, the next time a discussion turns to taxation rates, unions or the cost of environmental regulations, remember that it is not the individual value of a service or law that matters, but its role in sustaining a vibrant and robust human society.

Also see KPMG report on cost-cutting via Rob Ford in Toronto and the privatization of services in Denver, Colorado on This American Life.

Corruption in the banking sector

As I prance around Montréal and Québec trying to improve government services with open data, talks, activism and apps, I often get blank stares. Following the blank stares come the proclamations only slightly less direct than, “Government is a huge bureaucratic mess that spends like a drunken sailor and needs to be cut down to size.” While there are parts of this that are clearly true – government is often inefficient – people often fail to realize that government is not external to society. Government does not work in a vaccum, it is dependant on taxes (personal, property, corporate, other), people, civil society, and a vibrant economy. Importantly, access to capital and an ability to earn interest on assets is as important for government as it is for private companies.

Today, we are seeing dramatic austerity programs implemented in Spain, UK, Greece and other parts of the world. It is a social experiment on a global scale. On one side, we have the United States, Canada and Australia who are spending money and avoiding dramatic cuts and on the other side we have European countries making massive cuts. We will see the results, but it is interesting to understand the causes. In a global economy, money flows to places of security and banks are happy to accomodate both the wealthy fleeing failing countries and the governments desperately requiring capital to mask their faltering finances.

It is becoming clearer and clearer that the banks played a nefarious role in the evolving crisis. More than money changers, they actively entrapped governments and short changed them on their returns. We now know Goldman Sachs lent massive amounts of money to Greece in complex packages with restrictive terms few mortals could comprehend, a behaviour not dissimilar from a loan shark. In the same manner a drug dealer makes his clients dependant on them, Goldman Sachs made Greece dependent on their loans. Concurrently, banks around the world were rigging interest rates on municipal bonds and capital, reducing revenues to governments and further pushing them into dependency.

The magnitude of the scandal is just starting to emerge into sight, LIBOR being the biggest baking scandal ever. The evolving LIBOR (infographic) scandal affects 800 Trillion dollars (not a typo) of debt and securities and the municipal bond fixing scheme in the United States harmed thousands of towns. I encourage you to read the Rolling Stone piece on interest rate bidding by banks for management of municipalities’ capital, but basically both scandals are price fixing on a massive scale (see Bill Moyer’s show). These tactics of price fixing undermine the integrity of the system and lay bare the hypocrisy of solely blaming governments for budget shortfalls and overspending.

Fixing these problems and ensuring good governance by national and municipal governments requires diligent and talented people. Getting talented people into public service is harder than ever. Our society’s culture, since perhaps the 1980s, values private sector work over public work. Consequently, the best and brightest minds go into the private sector. This leads to further erosion of government services as mediocrity permeates government services, pushing yet more talented members of society into the private sector. And on and on until we hit a wall, we might be there.

Long story short, let us not be so quick to judge, sentence, and execute government for gross incompetence; the entire system is at fault and it will take a lot of hard work to fix it.

P.S., this is whole situation is similar to the run-up of the french revolution.

On charity and being charitable

Charity requires sacrifice. Perhaps sacrifice is not the best word, but rather austerity and humility. Lately, I have been thinking of the nature of charity.

Today, too many charitable organizations have been turned into fundraising machines that now have money as their primary goal. While financial ressources are essential to helping others, it cannot be an organization’s primary purpose. Charitable action must be duty bound, meaning it must be an action that directly helps others with as little benefit to yourself as possible. In contrast to this principle, in recent years we have seen the dramatic rise of sporting events as means for charitable organizations to raise money for their operations, such examples include 24-hour bike rides, hockey games with former professional athletes or ski marathons. The obvious argument about these organized events is the percentage of raised money that actually makes it to the organization. While that is a fair criticism, I believe it misses the moral imperative of participation in these events.

When I was a student at McGill University, a good friend of mine started a charitable organization to build a school in war ravaged northern Uganda. This was a noble cause indeed; if anyone needed more free schooling, it was them. To raise capital for the school, she employed a number of tactics and strategies. Most of them consisted in asking for money, organizing marches and promoting the organization. But, some of the strategies included hosting fancy parties at high end nightclubs in Montreal where a portion of the bar revenue would go to the organization in question. So, 22-year old students would gleefully spend their parents money on champagne and expensive vodka with the solace that some portion of their extravagance would make it to destitute children in Northern Uganda.

To me, these fundraising strategies of sporting events and gala evenings are a false form of charity because the participants of the events are enjoying themselves first and being charitable second. While enjoyment alone is not a sin, it does pose a problem when it becomes the main driver of participation. In Montreal, a large Cancer Society organizes a fundraising bike ride from Montréal to Québec in addition to other cities. The event in question is sponsored by Enbridge, a major pipeline company who has had numerous spills of highly polluting and carcinogenic oil into the environment and who propose a dangerous pipeline across pristine natural land in British Columbia. But I digress, participants of the bike rides to cure cancer must raise a minimum of 2500$ to participate, receive a jersey, food and infrastructure. They then get to bike in the beautiful Québec countryside for two days; I’m sorry that sounds more like a vacation than a charity event. From my perspective, true charity is only possible when you decide to forgo worldly pleasures for the joy of helping others. You cannot do both at the same time.

Through that reasoning, I find it very hard to donate money to these types of events. They smack of false charity that might be successful in raising awareness and generating revenue, but fail to meet the fundamental definition of charity. Jesus did not say, “Let’s party on 100 shekel Roman wine and give 15% for the redemption of our souls and children’s education.” The ends do not justify the means.

It is important to not blindly give to charity. The pink ribbon campaign for breast cancer research is another example of the transformation of charity into a commercial practice. Companies who offer unhealthy drinks and products slap the pink ribbon onto their products in the hope of selling more and perhaps trickling some money to cancer research. Many of their products are in fact potentially carcinogenic – from hairspray to sugary drinks to products made in polluting factories in China by poorly paid workers and then transported across the world on bunker oil burning tankers that cause smog and acid rain. How can that be called charity?

Charity must come from the depths of the soul. Before you can give charity, you must first become a charitable person and it begins and ends with yourself. As Gandhi stated, “Be the change you want to see”. In our times, people like Warren Buffet perhaps best exemplify this. Despite his massive wealth, he lives modestly and plans to progressively give away nearly all his money. I have heard rumours he even refused to give money to his grandchildren for cars and washing machines, he believes that material possessions should be earned when they can be. When a person lacks the ability earn their way, due to oppression, bad luck or some other event – they deserve help.

In this world, our personal actions are the only thing we have control over and true charity must come from the person. Humility and austerity must be the foundation of giving; without it, the act of charity becomes a narcissistic event that regardless of the financial success, lacks the morality, humility and honesty required to kneel down in the mud and help our fellow human stand up.

Edit: See this video for a funnier version of this post.

TEDxMontreal Talk – It’s time to upgrade our democracy

This year, I had the great privilege of being invited to give a talk on the future of democracy at TEDxMontreal. The event was wonderfully organized and the other speakers were all fantastic. Below is the talk and the original text, from which I deviated a bit due to fatigue, stress, and talking too slow. Overall, I think it went well, but I am very keen for your feedback. Was my point clear? Was it convincing? Are you ready to upgrade our democracy?

Many friends ask me why I work on Open Data initiatives at Montréal Ouvert, Québec Ouvert and Open North. This is why:

Jonathan Brun says it’s time to upgrade our democracy.

Do you remember the future? I am talking about the future we used to dream of: The flying cars, the miracle cures, the smiling families, spotless streets and monorails. What happened to it? Where is it?

I mean, part of it is here. We’ve sent a man to the moon, we’ve got devices that allow us to talk with anyone in the world, and we can easily procure the most exotic foods. In fact, anyone of of us can walk out of this room, down the street and for twenty bucks you can buy spices from India and vegetables from China. And even at minimum wage that’s only a few hours of labour.

Yet, if your city is any I know of, on your walk to the supermarket you’re likely to cross a person asking for money and possibly needing medical and psychological help. So, while we still have homelessness in our wealthiest cities, we can purchase 3$ spices from India. Let’s face it, our imagined future is not yet here – we still so many of the problems we thought we would have solved by now – poverty, access to education, affordable healthcare or equality between men and women. These problems we have failed to solve are communal failures, it’s not a single person or group’s or political party’s fault, it is our fault. If we all agree homelesness is bad and we don’t want it, why can’t we get government and society to act? We need to start talking better.

In 2011, a borough in the city of Montreal tried something new and innovative. They created an online budget simulator. Citizens could modify the budget, reduce certain services such as library hours and increase others, like pothole repairs. However, before submitting their budget, they had to balance it. This exercise played two important roles. First, it educates citizens about the costs of services. Secondly, it put the citizen in the same shoes as the public administrator. The borough received over 500 balanced budgets that allowed them to make representative decisions on behalf of the citizens. This hard data from the citizens was structured around facts, making the city administration accountable.

Contrast that to an in-person budget consultation, where people physically go to a consultation, maybe a dozen people in this room have been to one. They typically cost 10 times more and receives far less valuable data. The people who come to in person consultations often are the most outspoken, engaged and vocal. They all seem to unicorns and money trees, who doesn’t!

How do you reach that single mother of three working two jobs? You certainly can’t ask her to travel 45 minutes to speak for two minutes during a four hour town hall meeting. The barrier to participation is just too high for her.

This budget simulator allows her to participate and voice her priorities. And that’s the key, we need to get government and all citizens, from the single mother to the bike riding hipster, talking in a constructive manner. We need social feedback loops. The private sector has great feedback loops, they’re called products. You like something you buy it, you don’t you dont. Companies that sell products prosper. In democacy our best feedback loop is voting and we know how well that works.

Many municipal elections only get 30% participation, that is 1/3 people – just in case the math wasn’t clear! How many of us can say we voted at your last municipal election. Democracy advocates promise various solutions to this problem – changes to the electoral system, education, awareness, or instilling civic responsibility, etc – they aim to bump those participations by 2, 3, or 5%. I’m sorry, that’s a pathetic goal. I will not be satisfied until everyone in this room feels they can have an impact ont heir communities.

Not so long ago, we were debating if women should vote, I mean they’re only half the population. Emma Goldman was a militant feminist of the late 19th and early 20th century. When that debate was going on, she wrote an essay where she stands against woman suffrage. Not because women are incapable, or uneducated or too emotional, but because voting is a distraction from true democracy. She worried giving the right to vote would lead to apathy. I often hear, “Hey I voted, I participated, now let me watch TV!” But democracy is not a 20 minute exercise every 4 years.

The main reason people seem apathetic is simple is not because they don’t care, they do. People feel they don’t have an impact.

People tell me all the time – they’ve tried, they sent a letter to their elected official, participated in a consultation and nothing came of it – they go home feeling government is this massive structure of immovable size and even if they spent all of their spare time trying to affect it, they’d fail. The feedback loop for government is too slow. And that apathy is born out of perceived powerlessness.

Occasionally, we do rally together for change – most often in movies where we’re attacked by aliens or our when our underdog sports team wins the championship. With those external threats and victories, we become one, we engage in a common project, look in the same direction, our differences melt away and we focus our energy on the task at hand. But the real hard problems are not external to us – it’s not the Taliban, communists, or an alien race that threaten us; it is our own shortcomings, our own crime and injustice done upon our neighbours.

Recently, here in Montreal, a high school student was severely beaten by a classmate. The fight, or rather the pounding, was announced in advance – by text message. The time and location were set – everyone knew what was coming, except the victim.

The students, friends, congregated outside, and waited. The bully, twice the size of the victim, grabbed him and then proceeded to punch and kick his classmate until blood stained the cement school yard. The kid’s eye was shattered, his jaw broken and everyone just stared. This vicious violence was not done by a gang, or a criminal, it was done by a classmate, a neighbour.

And while this student’s face was being smashed in, fifty of his classmates looked on and taped the savagery on their smart phones, all eager to upload to Youtube. This spectacle of unbelievable apathy happens all the time at schools around the world.

I was picked on at school, called names, pushed around – discussing democratic reform in second grade was not as popular as you might think. My guess is many of us were bullied, or saw it happen, or even participated in it. When bullies strike, we can blame the school for a failure to intervene, or blame the bully for hitting the classmate or blame the onlookers who dont intervene. The answer of course is that everyone is to blame.

Injustice always starts at the personal level, but it can quickly become intitutionalized and grow – like a cancer.

My jewish name is Joseph, I’m named after my grandfather, Joseph, who I am told was a strong Polish man with a thick neck and a mean temper. He was born in Poland in 1920, in 1939, with dark clouds descending over Europe, his father Moishe and mother Clara decided to emigrate from from south eastern Poland to Canada, just east of Winnipeg. They fled Poland just in time.

The situation for jews in Europe in 1939 was so bad, so dire, that my great grandfather’s family was willing to give up all material possessions, board a ship, travel to a land they did not know – simply for the hope of escape. We all know Europe’s tenuous democracy completely disintegrated in the 1930s. But, it did not collapse in one night or with one man, it crumbled under collective apathy. The rights of many of its citizens were slowly and then quickly removed – the feedback loops that I spoke about earlier, that are essential to strong democracy were methodically dismantled. And people stood by.

Cities with 25% jewish populations, that is 1 out of 4 people, again – for your math, emerged from the war with nary a jew in site. With the exception of two of his cousins, my grandfather’s entire polish family was killed.

Killing 6 million people is hard; much harder than you might think. In case you were thinking about it. These 6 million people had to be identified, categorized and transported from throughout Europe to extermination camps where they were methodically sorted, worked to the bone and killed. That is a complex task and the only way to do it, is with computer technology. In fact, the use of IBM punch card technology was absolutely essential to finding, moving and killing these innocent citizens of europe. It was so important that the founder and CEO of IBM, Thomas Watson, received the Merit cross of the German Eagle, a high honour from the Nazi Regime.

So, let me be very, very clear. Technology is definitely not our saviour, it can be used to either end – good or bad.

Clearly, technology is not THE solution, it is just a tool, it is amoral. In many ways, we have avoided using technology for bad, instead we have used it for entertainment. But if we use our technology for 3D movies, never-ending video games or social check-ins won’t solve poverty. They are closed feedback loops that have no impact on real life.

Not only is it entertainment. We’re surrounded by technology – HD Tvs, the internet, cars, text messaging. When i can text my friend in China and get a intentateous response, I have different expecttions. Consequently, people’s expectations have changed. We demand instant gratification from our technology and government bureaucracy is anything but instant.

How can we ensure our technological innovations are used to improve democracy? You see, the opposite of war or conflict is not peace, it’s dialogue. As long we’re talking we can’t be fighting. And talking can change things, words matter.

Just as Emma Goldman had said, a truly democratic society is not one that votes every 4 years – it’s one that cares. Cares about the disenfranchised, the poor and the criminals. To solve our hard issues, our common problems that we talked about earlier, we must hold a continuous discussion that allows us to make constant adjustments to our policies and traditions. Yes, definitely easier said than done.


How do we focus that lost energy, that human potential spent watching TV into something productive – something that make’s society better. How do we help thousands of homeless people get off the streets and into jobs, how do we ensure a clean environment and a balanced budget. How can we get you engaged in solving our common problems?

Because civic engagement’s competing product is not apathy, it’s entertainment. As long as it’s easier to come home after a day’s work and sit in front of your TV than to improve your community, we’re gonna fail. So making it easy to engage is part of the solution.

Not only does it have to be easy, but people need to feel rewarded for participating. They need to feel the same high when greening their neighbourhood as someone does when they attain level 54 Magic Orc in the online video game World of Warcraft. What no warcraft players here?

Until we close that gap of reward, we cannot solve our communal problems. No amount of education is going to change that.

Because, we live in a competitive world, our attention constantly drawn to the shiny new toy. Clearly our capitalist feedback loops work great. We get a new iPhone every year. If the metric for capitalist success is money, what is government’s metric?

Data. Hard information on our environment, our prisons, our education – that is how we will measure our success. We need government to open up their data so that engaged citizens and organizations can see what is happening. whats broken and whats working. We need Data about budgets, contracts, infrastructure, services, immigration and everything government touches. This is the currency of society, it represents something deeper and more meaningful than money ever can.

We need to change the default setting of government. Today, governments are still in the 20th century. They are closed by default. They don’t publish information unless they feel it is essential, easy or have to by law. We need to switch government from a closed by default position to an open by default position. That is the beginning of a real conversation that matters.

All non personal, and I mean all, data needs to be made accessible in an open and digital format so it can easily be processed, visualized, digested and fed back into society in a way that allows us, the citizens, to mobilize, dialogue and close that feedback loop.

Once we all have access to the same knowledge, structured around the cold hard facts, we can begin to have a real conversation. We can remove government procedures and formalities that inhibit true conversation, remove red tape. We can ask our elected officials to enter the discussion on equal ground.

Now organizations around the world are working to make this happen. I mentioned an interactive budget earlier that is done by Open North here in Montreal. But groups are also building databases of elected representatives so other non-profits can mount advocacy campaigns.

These groups also work with media organizations to expose government contracts and route out corruption. They help citizens find clean restaurants, safe neighbourhoods, and easily file access to information requests. In short, these groups are laying the demoractic infrastructure of the 21st century. And it’s already changing things.

In 2007, Kenya had a contested presidential elections, which erupted into ethnic violence. Some intrepid Kenyan hackers built Ushahidi, an amazing tool to mobilize the public. The Ushahidi platform allows people to text in reports of violence, issues or anything really from their mobile phones – the information is then aggregated and displayed on an interactive map. This tool helped limit the ethic violence in Kenya and is now being used around the world for everything from clean water issues in native reserves to violence in the slums of Haiti. It is a tool, built by activists, that mobilizes citizens against the excesses of hatred. Is genocide possible with mobile phones and Ushaidi?

So that’s a start, but we need to spread these solutions to from rural villages in Bangladesh to the upper east side of New York City. We need to build a dialogue inside communities and amongst communities.

As technology and society’s expectations continue to accelerate, it is clear traditional forms of centralized government cannot keep up. People’s expectations are far ahead of what traditional government structure can provide.

The budget simulator I mentioned earlier helps public administrators understand their citizens needs in a simple, tangible and actionable way. What’s great about that example is the data you get, you see citizen profiles: drivers, cyclists, families, singles and then see issues where over 85% of the population was in agreement. This is what society is made up of – variety. We can see correlations between priorities, identify statistical significance and find many, many areas of agreement. The areas where we agree are the low hanging fruit, no government should hesitate to act on them.

But that is one thing, to get our flying cars, our monorails and our clean streets we need a new social contract between citizens and between citizens and government. Information, data, and therefore power, has to be handed back to the people.

Because, the next democracy is not some sort of new governing form based on an iPhone app. It’s a deep and fundamental opening up of government using techology. We go from a suit and tie periodic committee to an ongoing conversation with our elected officials and public services. It is a return to the roots of democracy, where apathy is the exception, not the rule, and where we can all meaningfully contribute to our communities.

So, no matter your day job or your interests – whether it’s security to clean water to a robust economy; wether you’re left and right wing, government matters, collective decisions affect your life and your children’s. We need to embrace techonology to close our society’s feedback loop and start meaninfgul dialogue amongst ourselves and with government. Because, we are the government, it is our and no one else’s to build that society of tomorrow. It’s time to upgrade our democracy.

Thank you for listening.

Understanding the Other

Understanding a fellow person’s point of view is often extremely hard, yet it can be extremely powerful. Beyond our opposable thumbs, language and large brains – our ability to coordinate our actions into group priorities is probably the most defining human skill. We are remarkably good at discussing, finding compromise and choosing a path of action for a collective group. Yes, we have a war here and there, but we’re generally good at it.

I recently read three great books on negotiating, discusing hard issues and understanding another person’s moral perspective. Getting to Yes is a quick and easy read on negotiation tactics, it could be boiled down to: discuss principles, not positions. This classic negotiation book outlines easy skills you can employ in any negotiation.

Difficult Conversations is the follow up to Getting to Yes. It explains how to understand another person’s history and perspective on an issue. It walks through how to put yourself in the some else’s shoes and find solutions – or at least communicate better.

The recent book by Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind, lays out a six pillar moral fondation that all humans use to evaluate decisions. It is an amazing book that is already having an impact in the political world. The six pillars he identifies through various studies are Care for the other (poverty), Harm to others (golden rule), Sanctity of institutions (church), Respect for Authority (father-son), Loyalty to a group (sports team, military) and Liberty and oppression (government, laws). You can read a detailed description of these pillars here and you can see Jonathan Haidt’s TED talk where he summarizes his findings. Haidt argues that Liberals (lefties) put much more emphais on the first two, while social conservatives place an equal(ish) emphasis on all six. There is a lot more meat to it than that, so I encourage all to take a look.

These three books are well written that really help you see where you’re priorities and concerns lie and where someone else might be speaking from. As with many great books, these ones analyse and then systematize many ideas and principles we know in the back of our mind, but have difficulty implementing or applying. I’m personally looking forward to using these tactics in a charged political discussion soon.

If all of us – especially those in the political world – read these books, the world would be a much more civil place. Of course, we will never agree on everything and political parties and opinions are here to stay, but these books paint a fascinating portrait of the human condition and how it alters our perception of the world.